The recent horrible events in France and the heartrending persecution of Christians in the Middle East have brought the issue of religious tensions to the forefront of our awareness. A deep recognition of the dangers of religious intolerance is emerging across the globe, raising fears that what we have seen in the recent past is not the worst of it. No longer can we repress the issue and relegate it to the realm of Middle East problems; this is an issue threatening civilization wherever it may be.
The attitude, whether spoken or not, among progressive governments and academics dealing with religious tensions, as we see from Europe’s tragedy, has failed. This attitude has been to downplay the significance of religion and religious differences. After all, how can entities who do not believe in religion dictate to religious people what approach they should take to others? Entities operating on completely different premises cannot successfully deal with those who operate solemnly on religious premises.
Historically speaking, the United States has been the first country in history to not only successfully create a full-fledged secular democracy, but to be the first one to allow people with radically different religious beliefs to live side by side in peace.
After seeing European countries sink in endless bloodshed predicated on religious tensions; theFounding Fathers realized that in order for a democracy to thrive, freedom of religion must be sacred. They did not commit to this notion because religion was not important to them, they committed to it exactly because religion was so important to them. The reason the United States of America is today a place where religion flourishes more than any other Western democracy is precisely because religion is valued and its freedom is guaranteed.
On a recent trip down south to the Bible belt, I was met with an experience that taught me a lot. A visibly orthodox Jew, I encountered people who were clearly dedicated Christians. Each and every encounter of mine with them reflected to me a high level of mutual respect and understanding. It was our religious differences that allowed for a higher level of respect to one another, rather than it being the other way around.
This is the key to developing a sustainable and enduring solution for religious tensions in Europe and the Middle East: acknowledge the profound differences, and the great need to be able to live side by side in peace and prosperity despite those differences. Those who ignore or downplay religious differences will never be able to foster a lasting solution for religious tensions. The solution for religious tensions must come from those who acknowledge the importance of religious beliefs, and yet at the same time realize the need to live with others, side by side- in peace.
As members of a democracy that has not only been a paradigm of success in fostering religious tolerance, but that has nourished those differences to allow for the thriving of religion in a creative and healthy way, we must realize our unique role in this pivotal point in history. Americans are in the position to show others that being deeply religious is no contradiction to living side by side with others who hold beliefs different that our own.
We have created a model that proves that embracing religion, if done properly, is not only not an impediment for tolerance but fosters a far deeper and more meaningful level of tolerance.
Special thanks to Lord Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik whose thoughts and comments have contributed to this article.
Poupko is a fellow at Yeshiva University’s Institute for Advanced Research in Jewish Law.
Published in The Hill, January 15, 2015